Advancing the Value of Ethnography

How New is the New? Reflecting on How to Design for Tomorrow through the Case of Autonomous Vehicles


An EPIC2021 Sponsored Panel by Waymo

How do we anticipate the futures of the things we are bringing into the world, and the experiences they will help shape?

The autonomous vehicle is posited as a net-new innovation. Never before have vehicles without human drivers at the helm roamed the same streets that we traverse daily while on a jog or in a bleary-eyed morning search for a cuppa-joe. Someday soon(ish) you may hail a fully autonomous ride for a trip to the office or for the once-in-a-lifetime race to the hospital for the birth of a first born. What a fantastically new product and world this will be! Or will it? How much are innovators tweaking and updating the existing, instead of inventing the new?

Join us for a conversation between members of the Waymo Insights team and invited panelists to explore “how new is the new?” Following decades of imagination, development, and narratives of hope and futures, the autonomous vehicle presents the future product/concept par excellence for this conversation amongst social and human-centered researchers and designers! The Waymo Insights team is dedicated to critical, yet engaged thinking about the emergence of new technologies in general, and autonomous vehicles and the future of mobility in particular.


Melissa Cefkin is a member of the Waymo User Experience Research Insights team where she focuses especially on autonomous driving systems’ interactions with people in the world and on the roads. She has played many roles at EPIC, and has a long career as an anthropologist in industry, including having worked at Nissan-Renault, IBM, Sapient and the Institute for Research on Learning.

Benedikt Fischer is a Strategist & User Experience Researcher at Waymo where he is leading the company’s research efforts around trucking and city needs. Benedikt specialises in using anthropological methods to inform product features, strategies, and concept designs. Before joining Waymo, Benedikt worked as a strategy consultant at ReD Associates in Copenhagen and New York where he led strategy projects with clients across the mobility, pharmaceutical, luxury, and consumer goods industries.

Laura Forlano a Fulbright award-winning and National Science Foundation funded scholar, is a writer, social scientist and design researcher. In 2020, she is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) at Durham University (UK) working on a project called Material Imagination. In 2018-2019, she was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Digital Life Initiative at Cornell Tech and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. She is an Associate Professor of Design at the Institute of Design and Affiliated Faculty in the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology where she is Director of the Critical Futures Lab. Forlano’s research is focused on the aesthetics and politics at the intersection between design and emerging technologies. Over the past ten years, she has studied the materialities and futures of socio-technical systems such as autonomous vehicles and smart cities; 3D printing, local manufacturing and innovation ecosystems; automation, distributed labor practices and the future of work; and, computational fashion, smart textiles and wearable medical technologies. Forlano is co-editor of three books: Bauhaus Futures (MIT Press, 2019), digitalSTS (Princeton University Press 2019) and From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT Press 2011).

Jack Stilgoe is social scientist working on science and technology policy. He is particularly interested in responsible innovation and the governance of emerging technologies. From Jan 2019-Dec 2021 he is the Principal Investigator of Driverless Futures? (, a project funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council on the anticipatory governance of self-driving cars.